Monday, February 2, 2009



February 02, 2009

CIVIL servants are expected to rest during weekends. So you can imagine how surprised I was to be invited by the district commissioner for a leaders’ meeting on a Sunday afternoon. And there was only one item of agenda - the food crisis in the area - and the matter was urgent. The hall was thronged when the meeting was called to order. Strategic positions were taken up, where one could gain sight of the chair’s eye and access to the passing microphone.

I learned the ground rules for survival and participation at such meetings many years ago. Amazingly, things have not changed much since .When it comes to food distribution, and most development issues for that matter, the village elders and politicians still dominate and retain their posts as community “gatekeepers” Historically, they may have played a protective - even consultative - role. However, with the arrival of the colonial settlers, wazee wa mtaa were appointed gatekeepers of a gatekeeper administration.

Since then they have controlled entry into the community, its information and resources. If you want access to the people, you must pass through them, and they have the powers to either lock you out or grant you admission. At public forums you may also be treated to the sight of women and youth leaders, but don’t be fooled; these are usually the elders’ second wives and offspring. These figures are entrenched in their positions and the provincial administrators are happy to permit their excesses because they will always remain loyal to the state.

Village elders are the loyalists of today. That Sunday afternoon I was reminded of how undemocratic and unrepresentative our decision-making organisations are. Not only do they determine who gets relief and who goes hungry, but another cadre of them controls development funds. I ponder our list of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) committee members. They are not just hand-picked, they are also damned incestuous and, I fear, fairly typical of what you will find elsewhere.

With such control of the nation’s resources is it any wonder that 10 million of Kenya’s population need food relief? If the coalition government has left 25 per cent of the nation hungry in its first year, are we not likely to have 99 per cent in poverty by 2012? Let us not blame God or the weather, global recession or anything else. What I am suggesting simply and plainly is that bad governance, corruption and lack of accountable institutions produce famine and ours is made by this government.

This is not a new or radical idea. Ten years ago, Indian economist Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics. His principal thesis was that large-scale famines have never happened in functioning democracies. The key word here is “functioning” because what we have here in Kenya is a purely administrative democracy. An effective democracy is concerned with transparency, opportunities, information, accountability and the rule of law and our leaders are not.

Seen this way, thousands can starve even when a country’s food production has not diminished. Last week, Catholic bishops posed the question why we are importing large quantities of maize when farmers in the North Rift are keeping large quantities which they cannot sell because of the miserable prices offered by the National Cereals and Produce Board Agriculture minister William Ruto tried to convince us that imported food costs less, but transport and handling charges push up the price. More In Print Edition